John Darnielle Lived the Teenage Goth Life I Never Did
“You don’t have to be goth 24 hours a day” and other lessons from the Mountain Goats frontman.
Illustration by John Garrison
I was a total grunge kid in high school. This was pre-internet early 90s, so I would desperately soak up alternative culture as much as I could through magazines like Ray Gun, SPIN, and Option, and music videos played on MuchMusic shows like City Limits and, later on, The Wedge. But as much as my peers chose to wear the grunge footwear of choice, Doc Martens, and brandish the same fucking Pearl Jam shirt as everyone else, there weren't a whole lot of kids that shared the same interests as me.
My school was no different than the ones you see in films like Election, Superbad, Three O'Clock High, or Pump Up The Volume. The cliques were all fairly obvious: jocks, socialites, sci-fi/math nerds, metalheads, stoners, keeners, etc. I didn't belong to any of them. I guess I was a bit non-committal. If I needed to socialize with any of those groups, I could easily assimilate.
But the group that I related to the most was the goths because they too were into counterculture. The norms in my school often referred to the goths as the "Death Squad" or the "Addams Family" or worse. The goths didn't seem to care though; they would keep to themselves and deflect the ignorance, and I admired that. They were all a little older than me and I always felt like an outsider looking in, but I guess they were outsiders too. I never quite felt like I was one of them, but they seemed to welcome my curiosity.
It was the music that brought us together. At the time, I was listening to almost anything considered "alternative" that I could get my hands on. I was a fan of the big names like the Cure, Joy Division, the Sisters of Mercy, and the earlier stuff by the Cult. My goth friends were quick to recommend music they thought I'd like, and from them I learned about Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Birthday Party, and Dead Can Dance. They also opened me up to industrial music. In addition to the Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and KMFDM I was listening to, they taught me about Front 242, Coil, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Cult.
Alas, I never became an actual goth. I was only ever a tourist in Goth City.
So when I heard the Mountain Goats had named their 16th album Goths, I wondered if maybe the band's wildly prolific leader, John Darnielle, had a similar experience to the one I had. As it turns out, he led the life I secretly wanted when I was 15—he was a total goth. And while that isn't what Goths is about per se, Darnielle does weave his own life experiences with a liberal amount of imagination to into a collection of songs that I think are some of his best yet.
Over the phone from his home in Durham, North Carolina, Darnielle is quite candid about his teenage past. Though he doesn't admit to being an erstwhile goth. He prefers the term "death rocker."
"On the West Coast, the term 'death rock' was floating around in the ether. Nobody really used 'goth,'" he says. "[In 1983] there weren't any bands saying, 'Oh yes, we play death rock.' But I liked that term a lot. I was 16 years old and I loved that the word 'death' was right there up front. Who has never been 16 and not thought that was cool stuff to be thinking about? To me, goth was Wuthering Heights, and I was more into gore. I wanted stuff that had death in it, not people that faint. [Laughs] But goth was also Bram Stoker, and Dracula is kind of ground zero for goth."
Whatever term you use, I tell Darnielle that my biggest stumbling block back then was committing to an all-black wardrobe. (I did once try wearing all black to school, though foolishly with poppy red Doc boots. I clearly needed some guidance, because it did not go over well. I can still hear the kids yelling out "Hey Ronald" in reference to my clown shoes. That was it for me.) But Darnielle doesn't buy this as a valid excuse.
"See, that's a myth. Who is goth 24 hours a day? Not many people," he says with conviction. "You don't have to be goth 24 hours a day. You have a space in your life—maybe it's a weekly club night or maybe even a monthly club night—where you put on a certain outfit and dress up a certain way and devote a certain amount of your day to get ready to perform, to be this person. Because you can't really show up to your job at Tim Hortons with your hair spiked up to the sky and your black lipstick, and be flexing some sort of attitude that would pass as cool at the club. Because that would pass as, 'Why are you giving me attitude with these donuts?' at the gas station."
I suppose I just liked bright colors too much to really pledge allegiance to goth's dark, shadowy tones. Vintage Adidas tracksuits were very chic in the indie/alternative world, and I wore out a banana-yellow one I found at my local Value Village. Along with my purple Dinosaur Jr. cow shirt, that tracksuit probably ruled me out for any goth inclusion, so I was pretty hopeless. I also didn't see myself pulling off the make up goths tend to wear. However, Darnielle was all-in for the fashion.
"Who is goth 24 hours a day? Not many people. You don't have to be goth 24 hours a day."
"I had my own version of it," he says. "On the West Coast, it was more understated. So my look was just enough black eyeliner to bring up the eye, not a big smudge, and a subtle amount of rouge, very high on the cheekbone, going into the sideburn in a sort of a fan. And my signature look, which everyone besides me hated, was buttoning my Oxford all the way up to my neck. Seriously, all of my friends would say, 'John, undo the top button!' and I'd say, 'No, that's not cool.' And they'd reply, 'No, you're the one who's not cool!' And I should've said, 'Wait 30 years.'"
Part of the allure of goth life for me was the fact that they had this well-defined subculture. I wasn't an outcast, but I appreciated how the goths I knew weren't lobbyists of school spirit, for which I had little of myself. They were the biggest outsiders in the school, but they took care of each other in this micro-society they built. Darnielle's goth phase came while he was living in the Southern California town of Claremont, just outside of Los Angeles. So, not the friendliest climate for people decked in black. But he and his girlfriend locked themselves away from the sun, and everyone else.
"At this point in my life, I had a girlfriend who was super important to me, and we shut out pretty much the entire world," he says. "We spent the whole summer of '84 in near-total isolation. We were in her bedroom listening to the Sisters of Mercy, the Birthday Party, and even Leonard Cohen a little bit. I had a group of friends I hung out with, but I was experimenting with the idea of cutting myself off."
On his new album, Goths, Darnielle uses memories from this phase of his life to construct vividly poignant and comical tales. For instance, the album closer, "Abandoned Flesh," tells the story of Gene Loves Jezebel, a pseudo-goth band that achieved some commercial success in the 1980s, but ended up with a fragmented and tarnished reputation in the scene. They're a fascinating subject, and one that Darnielle serenades with the lyric, "Because the world will never know or understand / The suffocated splendor / Of the once and future goth band." Darnielle's girlfriend introduced him to the band after seeing them at the Danceteria in New York, where she went to college.
"They sounded pretty good," he says. "But by the time, we heard them on the West Coast, they had decided to make this leap for stardom. They became a KROQ band, more like alternative rock, which I didn't care at all about. People who knew their music would never think of them as goth, but they did count as goth for a minute there. I don't think they ever ended up being good, but a lot of goths were sort of interested in Gene Loves Jezebel. And I liked the idea of goth as sort of a possible signifier in a flirtation."
Darnielle's favorite goth band was the Sisters of Mercy. For him, it wasn't just about the music, but also how they presented it. "I mean, the main thing is that the band were so good," he says. "My girlfriend and I loved the fact that everyone else was making albums and touring, but in the beginning, the Sisters of Mercy only made 12-inch EPs that were fucking unbelievable. We loved the first album [1985's First and Last and Always], I saw them twice on that tour, but it lacked the magic, the total mystery of these 12-inches that had almost no details of any kind, just the names of the musicians and the songs. Each EP felt like something to parse, like a text to say how they'd grown. And they had this relentless, singular vibe they were pursuing. As I talk about this I realize that this is the opposite of what I've done. I make as much stuff as I can, and since we've become a band I've tried on as many different sounds as I can. I'm very restless. But the Sisters of Mercy had this singularity and a vision that was very mysterious, that wasn't me."
Led by Andrew Eldritch's trembling, deep croon, the Sisters of Mercy was one of but a few goth bands that experienced some mainstream success worldwide with anthems such as "This Corrosion," "More," and "Temple of Love." Darnielle dedicated the album's first single to the Sisters frontman, but it isn't a straight tribute. Instead, he cooked up a tale called "Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds."
"The Sisters of Mercy haven't made any music in over 20 years, and I just thought at some point you have to go home and I liked the idea of Andrew Eldritch being a person," Darnielle says. "Like, 'I take off my hat and my sunglasses and go hang out with my friends who knew me when I was just a person who enjoyed a nice, sunny day in Leeds.'"
I suppose it should be pointed out that Goths is not an actual goth album. Yes, Andrew Eldritch, Gene Loves Jezebel, Robert Smith of the Cure, Siouxsie Sioux, and even Celtic Frost are all characters in Darnielle's songs, but the songs still sound like the Mountain Goats' brand of bookish indie rock. Like his previous 15 albums, Goths finds Darnielle taking the music into more of a jazz-influenced direction. "Most of the record is more like Roberta Flack's combo than the Sisters of Mercy," says Darnielle. But there is one song called "Rain in Soho" that's arguably more goth than anything Gene Loves Jezebel ever released.
"I had that title sitting around, and I was researching the Batcave, which was this club where the term goth grew out of," he explains. "I decided that this song should sound like that. So I just started playing an E-flat, and it sounded so goth. It was really liberating to do. And because it was just one song, I had to put the entirety of my goth nature into it, whereas if I spread it across 12 tracks, then I'd be doling it out sparingly. Like [Jon] Wurster's final drum fill before the outro there is just the essence of goth in one fill."
"Rain in Soho" is a song that both teenage John Darnielle and teenage me would have loved. And though the rest of the album doesn't sound like it, Darnielle feels Goths could resonate with the goths that hung up their capes years ago.
"It might be for goths of my generation," he says. "Like, people who never or seldom dress up like that anymore. But I think it's a reflective record. I hate to call it this, but I think it's a grown-up record. It's about looking at the things that you cherished when you were younger and deciding which of them are still in you and what they mean to you now."
Goth culture is not something most people sustain into adulthood. Occasionally, I think back to those days and wonder what "Goth Cam" could have looked like. Could streaks of rouge on my cheekbones really been any worse than my yellow Adidas tracksuit? While doing press for Goths, Darnielle has been reflecting quite a bit on his time worshipping the Sisters of Mercy and feeling like a boss in his totally buttoned-up Oxford.
As anyone familiar with the Mountain Goats can imagine, he hasn't donned eyeliner and rouge since he was a teenager. But that could change. When asked if he's open to dolling himself up before he steps on stage to play these songs, he doesn't seem opposed to the idea.
"You know, I've been thinking about it, but I'm not as skinny as I once was and it's important to be skinny when you're goth," he elucidates. "There is no photographic evidence of it but I was so skinny in my goth days. You can't even imagine. I was 5'10" and weighed 120 pounds. If I tried to rock my goth clothes now I would look pretty ridiculous. Having said that, I do feel like I should make some sort of overture to either put a little hint of rouge on the cheekbone or some eyeliner underneath my eyes. I have had a new suit made for this upcoming tour that I'm pretty excited about."
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter and is still not living his best goth life.
In addition to the interview John Darnielle was gracious enough to compile a playlist of songs that best represented his taste in goth. I mean, death rock. "I had to do some digging into my past," he says. "These are not songs I was listening to today. That said, I was able to immediately think of this, this, this and this." Fittingly, Gene Loves Jezebel did not make the cut.